Small sedans have always been worthy fleet fodder: the right size for urban duties, a bit more dignity than their hatchback equivalents and a secure boot for important business stuff. But taking compact sedans from workaday to a bit more wow-factor is a hard task.
The Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 are the two best-selling small cars in the country right now: ask either company what's required to make a small sedan appealing and you'd get different answers from each.
The Mazda3 is all about style and its maker believes a sedan should be as sleek as a hatchback. As with its predecessors, the new-generation four-door Mazda3 is hard to pick from its five-door sibling at a glance, but it is indeed a three-box design with a separate boot.
Toyota has taken a different route with the new Corolla sedan. While the hatchback model has embraced some radical styling, the sedan derives status from an impression of greater exterior size and a more upmarket visual presence. Call it a mini-Camry if you must.
Both are cars we know well. The Mazda3 is all-new, the third model from the Japanese maker to be designed and built around SkyActiv technology.
Unless you've just joined us, you'll know that behind the Corolla badge there are many different incarnations of this automotive icon. The new sedan is 345mm longer than the hatchback, 100mm of it in the wheelbase. Although the styling details are similar, it's really a different model (a Corolla wagon is different again).
Which of these two makes more of an impression? For our comparison we've aimed at mainstream variants of each. Mazda reaches up into larger engine territory with its SP25 models, so to match the 1.8-litre Corolla (the same engine is used in all variants) we've opted for the mid-range 2-litre GSX at $35,595.
There are Corolla sedans sitting either side of that price point: the $34,990 GX and the $37,490 GLX. The car you see here is the GX, which is closer in dollar terms, although the GLX is arguably a better match on equipment. More on that in a minute.
From outward appearance, it's easy to think of the Mazda3 as a small car and the Corolla as a much larger proposition. In fact, they're pretty close on paper: the Corolla is just 40mm longer, the two ride on the same-size wheelbase and tip the scales just 11kg apart.
The Corolla's 1.8-litre engine makes 103kW/173Nm, while the Mazda3's 2-litre produces 114kW/200Nm. Unsurprisingly, the Mazda is quicker to 100km/h (9.3 seconds versus 9.8), but it's also more economical. Combined consumption for the GSX is a remarkable 5.7 litres per 100km. In any other company, the Corolla's 6.6l/100km would be deeply impressive.
Picking between these two could come down to transmission preference. The Corolla embraces continuously variable transmission (CVT) technology, which is now almost a default choice among Japanese makers. Except Mazda of course, which has developed its own SkyActiv six-speed automatic.
The Corolla is smooth in city running; certainly first choice for gentle driving. But CVT does not appreciate hard acceleration, which it finds confusing.
The Corolla's CVT does at least have programming that attempts to match engine speed with road speed when you put your foot down. There's also a seven-step pseudo-manual mode, which is unconvincing but at least gives you some options.
The Mazda3 has the kind of sporty feel you only get from a transmission that actually changes ratios. Simple really, and quite satisfying. Although to be fair, there's a coarse aspect to the Mazda powerplant at high revs that's not as prominent in the Corolla.
When the new Corolla hatch was launched last year we were genuinely surprised at its crisp handling. That carries through to the sedan, which has consistent steering and a confident gait through corners.
The Mazda3 takes things up a notch, though. The power steering has some odd weighting (and makes some odd sounds) in wheel-twirling parking manoeuvres, but out on the open road it's much more communicative than the Corolla's. The chassis also goes from quietly capable to highly entertaining very quickly, once you get a feel for it.
It all goes the Mazda's way in cabin design. It's not that the Three has better-quality materials, rather they are used more cleverly, with soft plastic where you're most likely to touch it and an interesting visual mixture of textures elsewhere.
They are deliberately different, of course. The Mazda aims to look intimate and sporty inside, while the Corolla is more about a large-car feel. The Three's cabin wraps around you, while the Corolla's expands away into the distance to create an impression of space.
Both have touch-sensitive displays for audio, Bluetooth and other vehicle functions -- including reversing cameras. The Corolla's screen is a modular Toyota head unit with a 6.1-inch display and it does the trick, although it doesn't have satellite navigation like the Mazda. You have to step up to the $43,690 Corolla ZR to get that.
In fact, the entire set-up is not half as impressive as the Mazda's. The Three's MZD Connect screen is a crisp 7-inch unit that sits proud off the dashboard and can also be operated by an iDrive-like controller.
Mazda has gone all-out with the specification of its new model.
Even our mid-grade GSX has automatic lights and wipers, keyless start and driver-assistance safety features such as blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert (which warns you of approaching traffic when you're reversing out of a parking space or driveway).
The Corolla GX featured here is somewhat disadvantaged by being an entry-level car -- it even rides on 15-inch steel wheels. It can't compete with any of the above. Step up to the $37,490 GLX and you match the Mazda's 16-inch alloys and pushbutton start, but you'd have to go to the flagship ZR for automatic lights/wipers. Toyota does not offer blind-spot monitoring or cross-traffic alert on any Corolla models.
Both provide generous accommodation front and rear -- easily large enough to serve as medium-car substitutes. But given that they ride on identical 2700mm wheelbases, you cannot help but be impressed by the amount of rear legroom in the Corolla. It's rather luxurious -- if not necessarily in ambience, then certainly in the amount of stretching-out space.
Corolla has the bigger boot, too: 470 litres versus 408 for the Mazda3. Both have 60/40 split rear seats, although the Corolla's load-through space is strangely small -- crowded by the bulkhead behind the seats. The Mazda has neat seat-folding buttons in the boot, although both cars have luggage-crushing exposed hinges.
The bottom line
It's a comprehensive win to the Mazda3, which leads its rival on design, performance, equipment and overall value. Consider Corolla if you're concentrating on city driving or want the best rear-seat and luggage space.